The effect of cold exposure on the sympathoadrenal system in primates was studied with and without ketamine anesthesia in eight adult rhesus monkeys. Each monkey was placed in a primate chair at a thermoneutral temperature (25 degrees C) for 1 h (control) followed by cold exposure (12 degrees C) for 3 h or placed in a circulating water bath (28 degrees C) to induce a decrease in core temperature (Tre) to 35 and 33 degrees C. Plasma catecholamines were analyzed by high-pressure liquid chromatography with electrochemical detection (60-65% recovery, coefficient of variation = 15%). The 3-h cold exposure was associated with a 175% increase above control levels of norepinephrine (NE) and a 100% increase in epinephrine (E). Decreases were evident in Tre (0.5 degree C), mean skin temperature (Tsk, 5.5 degrees C), and mean body temperature (Tb, 2.0 degrees C). Continuous infusion of ketamine (0.65 mg . kg-1 . min-1) resulted in no change in the plasma levels of NE and E from the control levels. Tre, Tsk, and Tb all showed greater declines with the addition of ketamine infusion to the cold exposure. Water exposure (28 degrees C) under ketamine anesthesia resulted in a drop in Tre to 33 degrees C within 1 h. Plasma levels of NE and E were unchanged from control values at Tre of 35 and 33 degrees C. The data suggest that the administration of ketamine abolished both the thermoregulatory response and the catecholamine response to acute cold exposure.